I wear two hats when I write this blog of mine. First and foremost, I manage a small charity in a small Scottish town called Dumfries. Ours is a front door that opens onto the darker corners of the crumbling world that is Britain 2015. We hand out 5000 emergency food parcels a year in a town that is home to 50,000 souls. Then, as you can see from all of the book covers above, I am also a thriller writer. If you enjoy the blog, you might just enjoy the books. The link below takes you to the whole library in the Kindle store. They can be had for a couple of quid each.

Thursday, November 16, 2017


There is something very African about the money out here in Uganda. For a start, cash goes by the name of 'Shillings', a throwback to the days not so long ago when the British Empire had a firm boot stomped down on the neck of the nation. And then there is the thing about how many Ugandan Shillings you get for one of our British Pounds.

Five thousand.

It means you need to dust off your 'big number' maths skills to work out what something costs. The fat wedge of cash you see me handing over at the top of the page is seven and a half million Ugandan Shillings. Are you up for some mental maths? Seven and a half million divided by five thousand?

Any of you with the mental agility to come up with £1500 is better at this kind of thing than I am.

Carol and I are both in total agreement about this particular £1500 - it is by far and away the most pleasing money we have ever spent. The precise nature of the transaction which we had just shaken on in the picture was seven and a half million Ugandan shillings for 3000 packs of Always Maxi Thick sanitary towels. This we are assured is enough to meet the needs of every one of the 250 female pupils at the Kamuganguzi Janan Lewan Memorial (KJLM) Secondary School for the next year.

What numbers can describe the impact of this? Well lack of sanitary ware means the girls are missing an average of 50 school days per year. And they do long school days out here. Lessons start at eight and end at five with an hour off in the middle of the day for 'Posho' and beans. You only have to take the briefest of glances into one of the classrooms to see how every word of the teacher is hungrily absorbed. Families have to make vast sacrifices to pay for their children to receive secondary education and the children know it. Every minute is made to count. 

If one person can achieve the grades to secure a well paid regular job, then they are then able to look after an extended family of up to thirty.

So. Fifty extra days of class time a year? Four hundred extra hours of class time per year? That equates to a jaw dropping 100,000 extra hours for the 250 girls at Kamuganguzi Janan Lewan Memorial (KJLM) Secondary School.

Maybe these extra hours might tip the scales for twenty of the girls. Maybe these extra hours will be the key to better 'O' and 'A' level results and twenty good jobs which otherwise might not have been reachable.


And at this point the maths become even more eye watering. I will assume each of the girls has an extended family of 25. So an extra 500 people are provided for. Secondary school fees are covered for many more children of the generations to come.

And so on it goes. This is how the so called developing world can roll. The ripples caused by a fairly small pebble in the pond can run and run.

Yesterday Penina, the school's deputy head, told us about the gut churning sadness she feels every time a talented pupil is forced to drop out. She told us how they would often as not 'go to the stones'.

'The stones' are the place underneath the bottom rung of the ladder. You go to the stones when there is nowhere else to go. When an unusually ferocious storm lashes the hillsides hard enough, the structure of the earth is disturbed and a landslide moves a few hundred tonnes of soil and rock. This leaves the underlying rocks open and exposed and a new quarry is born. 

Family groups make their way to the opened earth to break the stone down into different sizes with hammers. The oldest worker on the site might be a grandmother in her seventies. The youngest workers are under five. The rate of pay is measured in plastic washing up bowls. 

So you take a basketball sized stone and smash away at it until you have enough gravel to fill up a plasic washing up bowl. How long does such a task take? I have no idea. It would take me ages and my hands would be a mess of blisters by the time my bowl was ready for inspection.

A full bowl of freshly smashed gravel weighs in at 200 Ugandan Shillings. This can sound like a tidy sum when you think in terms of Oliver Twist or taking the 'Queen's Shilling'. In reality it doesn't get you much.

If you buy a hard boiled egg from a ten year old trainee entrepreneur on the streets of Kabale Town, it will set you back five hundred shillings. So to earn enough to buy a single hard boiled egg you need to smash up enough stone to fill two and a half washing up bowls with gravel. Three and a half bowls gives you enough to pick up a roasted corn cob.

A room for the night of the most basic type? 25 washing up bowls worth.

Forty hours a week of work at our new minimum wage in Scotland would be enough to trade in for 1.7 million Ugandan Shillings. A lot, right? Sure it's a lot. More to the point, it is 8500 plastic washing up bowls worth of smashed up gravel.

Realistically, how many bowls could I fill in a week if the skin on my hands actually allowed me to wield a hammer for forty hours? Twenty? Twenty Five? I have no idea. Enough for ten hard boiled eggs? Eight roasted cobs of corn? No wonder it breaks Penina's heart when a talented pupil drops our of class to 'go to the stones'.

OK. Time for som even bigger maths. Huge, ginormous maths. When we get back home it will be time to get the show on the road and to try and raise some funds to provide enough sanitary ware for another three schools. I plan to drop a line to Liverpool's new star African striker, Sadio Mane. Sadio hails from Senegal and I guess he will be all too familiar with how life is for those who have no other choice than to 'go to the stones'. Maybe he might have had to go to the stones himself had he not been born with such a God given talent.

I guess Sadio will be earning somewhere in the region of £150,000 a week. So here goes. That is seven hundred and fifty million Ugandan Shillings. And that is three million and a three quarter million washing up bowls of smashed up stone. Wait for it. If you were line up this many washing up bowls filled with smashed up stone, the line would be eight hundred and fifty miles long. At my optimistic rate of filling 25 bowls a week, it would take me four hundred and thirty years to earn what Sadio nails down for kicking a ball around for seven days in Liverpool.

Like the song says, it's a mixed up, muddled up, shook up world.

My pitch to Sadio will have nothing to do with washing up bowls filled with smashed up stone. Instead I will point out the alarming fact that most of the lads out here are wearing Arsenal shirts and something needs to be done to get more them of them wearing Liver Bird crested red. If he was sort out a year's worth of Always for a couple of schools, well who knows, in a year's time the streets out here will have more of an Anfield feel to them. Sure, it's a long shot but anyone involved in any kind of charity will tell you all about the 'if you don't ask, you don't get' thing.

A couple of days ago, new research revealed the wholy unsurprising fact that the richest 1% of humanity now owns more than the poorest 50% put together.

That is a set of figures on a piece of paper. When you drive past the ones who have 'gone to the stones', the numbers jump off the page and form into an unmerciless reality.

And our seven and a half million Ugandan Shillings? Fair enough, it is nothing more than a drop in the ocean but we couldn't be any happier about it.

3000 packets of Always Maxi Thick arrive at their destination.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017


Life can certainly take you into some pretty unexpected situations. Those moments when you stop for a moment and think how on earth have I ended up here? Over the years I have often had this feeling in a variety of schools. In the months after I released my book 'The Drums of Anfield', I wound up talking about the story in a few high schools in the depths of Liverpool 8 where the classrooms had a distinctly Wild West feel. Then there have been any number of scowling Scottish S4 pupils looking like they would rather have their teeth pulled out with rusty pliers rather than be forced to listen to yet another drug awareness talk. That said, I have yet to find a Scottish classroom with quite the same Wild West feel as those classrooms in deepest, darkest Liverpool.

And there was me thinking being in front of these various audiences was in any way out of the ordinary. After yesterday, any further time I spend in front of a Scottish class will seem beyond mundane.

After fifty six years of life, yesterday brought me my greatest 'how on earth did I wind up standing here' moment yet. What started with listening to a BBC World Service podcast about the young people of Uganda a few short months ago had suddenly turned into Carol and I being invited to talk to 200 Ugandan schoolgirls about sanitary ware.

Yeah. Seriously!

Yesterday was a day when an aspiration became a reality. On paper, the fact that most Ugandan school girls have to miss up to 20% of their education due to a lack of sanitary ware seemed like a problem we might be able to do something about. Up until yesterday afternoon, it was very much a paper exercise. Making bookings and contacts and arrangements. Getting ducks in a row.

And finally it was time for the living breathing reality. A rendezvous with Ambrose outside the Stanbic Bank. A ride through the bouncing light and noise of downtown Kabale. 25 km of green hills and banana trees and roadside cows and bicycles carrying loads to beggar belief.

A precipitous dive off the tarmac and onto the dusty track to the place where the Kamuganguzi Janan Lewan Memorial (KJLM) Secondary School nestles under a clutch of steep green hills.

Ambrose signed us in with the gateboy whilst faces peered out from the open windows. Long low buildings with tin roofs. A crop of beans. Well worn mud pathways.

The Reverand Benon was waiting for us outside his office with a wide grin and a bone crunching hand shake at the ready.

We spent an hour with him in his office as a courier from Kampala brought in sealed O level papers for him to sign for. Outside the noise of lunch hour came and went as he introduced us to the almost overwhelming challenges the school is doing its best to deal with.

Primary education out here is free. Secondary school is to be paid for and it is had to imagine how tough it must be for parents to find the means to educate their kids. As a rural school far from the capital, fees at KJLM are low when compared to Kampala: £22 a term for day pupils and £44 a term for boarders. I know. Compare and contrast with the likes of Eton and Harow and weep. £22 a term. 50 pence per day or thereabouts. It doesn't sound so bad until you realise most of the families from the surrounding hills are looking to get by on a fiver a day at which point 50p takes on a whole new shape.
The Reverand told us about one female pupil who has neither parents nor home. She sleeps under what shelter she can find and works in one of the quarries for 50p a day. Three days work enables her to pay for 2 days of school.

The most pressing issue for the school at the moment is the sky rocketing price of 'Posho' – maize meal. Every pupil receives lunch as part of the fees their families pay and the school lunch is a vital part of their daily diet. The meal never varies – every day five hundred portions of Posho and beans are served up. The Maize meal is mixed with water, turned into a a porridge and then left to harden. Dried beans are mixed with water and served up as a thick porridge. The maize provides the carbs whilst the beans cover the protein.

A few months ago the school was paying £20 for a 100 kg sack of Posho. Not any more. Many parts of Uganda have been hit by drought and now famine is stalking the land. The price of food has gone through the roof and now a sack of Posho costs £43. The price of a sack of beans has also doubled. Before the drought, it cost the school about 8p per head, per day to feed the kids. Now it costs nearly 20p per head, per day. I don't have the first clue how they are managing to keep on doing what they do. Something tells me the teachers must have had to grit their teeth and take a pretty hefty pay cut.

A meeting in the Head's office in a Scottish high scholl might well come complete with a tray of tea and biscuits. We had the tea but instead of biscuits a freshly cut branch of bananas was plonked down on the desk.

Once lunch was over, the girls who were not sitting their 'O' Level exams were gathered in the hall to hear all about who the two strange visitors were and what we were hoping to do. The assembly hall was a long, low building with a tin roof and a clay floor. Desks were carried in whilst the sun poured through the open windows.

200 pristine uniforms. 200 rapt faces. And when the Reverand announced the news that we were going to provide enough sanitary ware for every girl in the school for a whole year the tin roof was in danger of being lifted clean off by the cheering. I don't think either Carol or I really knew where to put ourselves.

The expression on every face told a story. No more old rags. No more infections. No more getting behind with studies every month.

Not a paper excersise any more. A reality now. An utterly humbling reality.

Volunteers were sought. Would any of the girls be willing to come and talk to us in the Head's office? To tell us about what kind of difference having sanitary pads might make to their lives. When they came, we asked if it was OK to film them so we could use the films to try and raise more money to help more girls in more schools. Each and every one of them said "Yes, it is OK".
Serious faces and immaculate manners and backs as straight as fence posts. Quiet voices. Shy eyes. My parents are very poor.... I live with my grandmother and she has no money for pads.... yes, I have had infections.... yes, I miss school.... two days per month.... four days per month..... one week per month.

They have a word for how it is when their menstrual blood soaks through the rags. They call it 'mapping'. In soft voices they described the humiliation of 'mapping'. Trying to wrap a school jumper around their waists to hide the shame. And those with no school jumper would hide in the classroom until everyone else had left.

And when they promised never to miss a day of school in the future their eyes shone and their serious expressions evaporated into beaming smiles.

Carol found it hard. She found it hard to deal with their wonderful courage. She felt she was being intrusive. Interviewing them one by one. For the camera. For YouTube in the future. Because we live in a world where pictures are everything. A world where we give an average of 30 seconds of our attention to a YouTube offering. Will their soft voices and serious eyes be enough to win over hearts in 30 seconds of YouTube time? We'll see I guess. Christ I hope so.

After a few hours we rolled out through the gates and back onto the road to Kabale.

So much to try and absorb. So much to try and comprehend. Such overwhelming dignity in the face of such a sea of troubles.

Sadness and utter inspiration all rolled into one.

Like I said, life can take you to some pretty unexpected places.

Sunday, November 12, 2017


When does any journey really start? Right now I have the feeling of someone about to embark on a new journey, but in truth I probably crossed the real start line many years ago. The ten year old me under the smoky skies of Blackburn reading books about Africa with a mix of wonder and awe. Or the rough edged eighteen year old me who rode a crawling ex army Bedford truck all the way across the Sahara and the Congo to white beaches of Indian Ocean. Or a trip to Uganda in my mid twenties and the gut wrenching reality of the Aids crisis at its peak. Then later. A father now, standing by the brown waters of the Gambia River with Carol and my young sons under a burning sun. Staring out at the island in the centre of the flow. Long deserted white buildings almost invisible under a vast tangle of vines. An old slave fort. A ghost of a memory of a truly vast crime committed by my people. Maybe even a place where relatives of my boys passed through en route to the killing fields of Barbados.

In chains

A West African school. Windows without glass. A rusty iron roof. A dusty clay football pitch hammered flat by years worth of hard, bare feet. And a sea of beaming smiles. And we had a business at a time which meant we were able to shake on a deal with an old Irish missiorary in the capital. £50 a month into his acount in Dublin which was turned into £50 a month of pencils and pens and exercise books. And for a while letters would land every month with exotic African stamps bearing news or many more children reading and writing.

And then our business went bust and we had to write to say there would be no more pencils and exercise books and pens. But after the school, we always said a day would come when we would do something again. In Africa. In the homeland of the ancestors of our two boys.

Or did this this journey really begin a few short months ago. Walking the dogs under grey Scottish skies with a BBC World Service podcast in my ears. A documentary about the country of Uganda where the average age is sixteen. All the challenges and opportunities faced by a land overflowing with the hopes and dreams so many young people. And suddenly there was something which was so shockingly simple it stopped me in my tracks.

Most Ugandan school girls miss a quarter of their education because they do not have access to any sanitary ware. It is a problem which lacks any degree of complexity. This isn't an issue made complicated by local customs and laws. Instead it is the biology of every female citzen of this planet of ours. Straight away the problem resonated and rang bells. I recalled Carol writing to Scotland's Health Minister to point out how female heroin users going onto the methadone programme would experience extra heavy periods and how we really needed Government funding to provide good quality sanitary ware for our clients.

We never heard back.

School girls missing a quarter of their education due to a lack of sanitary ware. A huge but simple problem requiring a very straight forward fix.

Provide sanitary ware.

I took the problem home and we had a talk and decided the time had come for us to try and make a contribution to the homeland of the ancestors of our two boys.

So here I am perched on a terrace looking out across the waters of Lake Bunyonyi and feeling for all the world like some kind of wannabe Hemmingway as colourful swallows swoop under the under the eaves of the tin roof and a roll up smokes away in the ashtray at my side.

To get to the 'Lake of little birds' means a 20 km rutted track which climbs away from the manic noisy streets of Kabale and then up and over the steep terraced hills. If a few hours have passed since the last rain, you can maybe average about ten miles an hour. If the deluge is more recent, then five miles an hour is a more realistic number. The road is a red clay mix of trenches and potholes which hangs off the steep slopes which rise from the water in a vivid quilt of green.

Seeing Lake Bunyonyi for the first time is a like entering the film set for Jurassic Park. A hundred years ago the world had many places like this. Now there are very few left. It is impossible not to feel privileged to be here.

But I digress.

Thanks to the wonders of the internet, Google took me to contacts and conversations and Janet at the Rafiki Foundation and finally an introduction to Reverend Benon who is the headmaster at a school of five hundred in the hills by the border with Rwanda. E mails traversed the ether from Dumfries and Galloway to Kabale Province and then back again. The Reverend confirmed everything the World Service documentary had reported. Yes, this is a huge problem. And yes, the answer to the problem isn't all at complicated. There is no shortage of sanitary ware in Kabale Province. There is a shortage of money to buy sanitary ware. As soon as it was clear we would be able to actually achieve something worthwhile, we booked our passage.

It has been nearly a week now and we are becoming adjusted to the African way. It is impossible to overstate how impressive these people are. For a start, just about everyone who waves from the road side looks like an Olympian. The big deal we make about six packs at home seems laughable out here. The tasks these guys carry out for ten hours of every day would probably be deemed too severe for a proposed stongest man reality show at home.

Almost everyone here is self employed. They wake up early without a penny in their pocket and step out into the morning light to duck, dive and hustle. The youngest and the oldest stay home to raise the crops. Every hut is surrounded by a patchwork of ever rotating crops – bananas and corn and sorghum and sweet potatoes and beans. Goats and cows are taken to grass verges of the roads by their five year old shepherds. The young men and women of the family ride the back of bikes and scooters to the hyper energy of the streets to carve a few dollars out of their chosen niche. What looks like utter chaos at first glance soon achieves a miraculous kind of order when you look closely enough.

On the surface of things, the cold hard facts are daunting. The average wage here is about $3 a day and yet food is expensive. A 2kg bag of rice costs about the same here as it does in Tesco at home. Every street buzzes with swarms of Buda Buda riders. A Buda Bada is a motorbike which trades in giving 'backies' from A to B. Sometimes they carry one passenger. Sometimes two. Sometimes three. The loads they manage to carry beggar belief. As we tip toe our way around the pot holes in our rented Toyota 4x4, the Buda Buda boys race past us complete with 50kg sacks of plantains and beaming grins. They don't tend to do helmets here. Of course they don't.

A Buda Buda boy will earn £6 on a good day. £2 goes to the guy who rents out the bike. £1 goes on fuel and maintenance. Which leaves a profit of about £3 for twelve hours of hustling. Not enough to pay for a roof over the head and the basics of life. Instead this is the cash which buys the family the stuff the fields cannot provide. Soap and school uniforms for younger siblings and doctor's bills for grandparents. The family is the Welfare State. The safety net is all down to relatives and neighbours and villages. Life is physically hard. Relentlessly challenging. And yet nobody is left isolted and lonely and worthless.

Even on a good day you would be lucky to see ten percent of the pedestrians on one of our empty streets wearing a smile. Here the streets are a rolling soap opera where everyone beams. There is so much we could learn from these extraordinary people if only we were minded to. But we aren't of course. Instead we shrink in horror at the though of having so little.

The endless, wall to wall friendliness shown to us is truly humbling, especially in the light of the disgraceful way we have behaved in these parts down the centuries. Nelson Mandela gave us all an object lesson on how African culture treasures forgiveness over all other things. Past crimes are locked away in inpregnable vaults. This is place where only today and tomorrow matters. Yesterday is very much deemed to be dead and gone. Thank goodness for that! Otherwise I very much doubt if the guys at the border would have been willing to stick and East African Tourist Visa into our passports. Instead they would have stared us down with cold, hard eyes. Are you serious? After what you people did here?

So tomorrow our journey really begins. We will climb into the Toyota and set on on what we now think of as the 'Lollipop Run'. The boot is well stocked with big bags of Kojak style lollies and and kids of the 'Lake of Little Birds' are getting to know our vehicle well. They leave their goats and come cascading down from the fields to jump in gleeful anticipation of the white guy and the black lady in the 4X4.

Then it is a meeting outside the Kabale branch of the Stanbic Bank to meet our guide, Ambrose who will take us to meet the kids at the school in the hills. Our goal for this trip is to make sure every girl in the school will be able to attend every day of class for the next year. It seems like this goal will be achievable.

And then? Then we will have a new responsibility. What we are able to bring to the table is thirteen years experience of running a charity. Of by hook or by crook coming up with enough funds to help out 5000 people a year who lack the means to buy food.

To come up with 5000 sticking plasters to cover up the wounds of our Government's mean cruelty. This time we have the honour of doing more than handing out sticking plasters. Education is the key to everything here. When education is added to the vast reserves of energy, optimism, ambition of Uganda's vast army of young people, almost anything will be possible.

Who knows how far this journey is going to take us. We don't. I guess we need to take each new mile with a slow African stride. Duck, dive and hustle and one way or another you get there by the end of the day.

This a place where it is hard not to feel just a little superstitious. A couple of days ago I had a spooky feeling when I checked my e mails. The inbox contained a message form the Scottish Government. I few weeks ago I filled in application for funding for our foodbank to offer emergency sanitary ware in each of the 23 collection points across Dumfries and Galloway where our food parcels are stored. The timing of the acceptance seemed like a pretty encouraging omen to me!

And maybe just maybe, somewhere out there the ancestors of our two boys will look down us as we bounce over the pot holes of the 'Lollipop Run' and give our efforts a quiet nod of approval. After all, every single human being on our planet can be traced back to the vast Rift Valley which provides a home for this 'Lake of a thousand birds'. In the end we are all Africans. Sadly those of us who live out our lives in the cold lands of the north have forgotten how to live our lives in the African way.

It seems like this journey of ours might have many miles to come.